The Inertia of the Ordinary
How Christianity Survives
When, in the 1941 Humphrey Bogart movie The Maltese Falcon, private investigator Sam Spade’s partner is murdered, the landscape of Sam’s work changes.
When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it.
This is the pastor’s dilemma. The crushing dysfunction and confusion of the contemporary world demands to be answered. Pastors are made to feel that they need to respond by leading their churches to do something dramatic and immediate. It doesn’t always matter what we think of the issues before us, we are supposed to do something.
And so the question of the psalmist is pressed upon us,
“. . . if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”1
The question is a good one, and one which we must answer. But what if the something we are to do looks to most people like doing nothing because that which looks like doing nothing is the something that needs doing?
In 2018 I enjoyed a week of quiet reflection at the Abbey of Gethsemani in central Kentucky. I was the guest of the Trappist monks for whom the abbey is home and whose calling is prayer. To those convinced that what the righteous must do are things like building shelters for abused women or lobbying the government for the sake of the unborn, the monks seem to do nothing. The monks argue that though prayer, because it is private and unspectacular, looks like doing nothing, it is a something deeply essential.
Their doing looks like not doing. Nevertheless, the church’s most important calling is to be diligent in such unseen and undramatic doings. They feed what Cullen Murphy has labeled “the inertia of the ordinary.”
In 2007 Murphy published a book called Are We Rome?2 examining the parallels between the fall of Rome and what he was then observing in the United States. Recently, after the January occupation of the US Capitol, he revisited these thoughts in an essay published in The Atlantic. In that essay, he observes that when a society is on its way to collapse, owning positions of power and influence is, in the end, fruitless. I read this against the backdrop of so many Christians on the right and the left anxious to gain those positions of influence, and I add it to the list of reasons why political power is not to be a goal of the church.
Political influence while temporarily impactful does not survive cultural collapse. What does endure are the common and local activities of human life, the activities by which humans find food and shelter, and the way in which they seek beauty and preserve the life of the spirit. Murphy sees these things as a force for preservation, as the inertia of the ordinary.
These activities have, so far, always survived calamity—a bridge from every past to every future. Human society is resilient. And tending to basic needs can be a source of aspiration.3
I love this. Our work of leading congregations to simply be a faithful community committed to loving God and neighbor is what has the most lasting impact upon the world. To tend to the basic work of the church is to be a source of aspiration.
We are not powerless. Our power is local. We may not, for example, be able to influence the way large institutions treat women or people of color or the unborn. But we can lead our church to treat men and women with equal respect, and to care for the unmarried and the orphan, and in so doing we have done something. We may not be able to stem the tide of the re-definition of marriage in our culture, but we can encourage healthy and vibrant marriages in our congregations.
These things are ordinary. They are pastoral. They get no public recognition. But their impact will withstand the gates of hell.4
Murphy’s concern is not for the church particularly, but that of sociologist Rodney Stark is. In his book, The Rise of Christianity,5 he examines how the church grew and gained influence even as Rome fell. In short, what endured were the church’s ordinary and local acts of fruitful love.
As pastors love people, lead them in worship, teach them community, model for them Christ-likeness, they feed the inertia of the ordinary. Perhaps pastoral work is so hard and so fraught with sorrow because the devil knows these are the works that matter. He would rather we focus elsewhere.
In a tribute to his friend Walter Wangerin, Frederick Niedner reminds us that
“. . . the weightiest of human accomplishments happen away from public view, as we ply our vocations as friend, spouse, and parent; face our dark sides; and forgive and accept forgiveness.”6
The inertia of the ordinary is nurtured away from public view. It is unseen. But that which is unseen, and looks like doing nothing is the something that needs doing.
Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (United States: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (United States: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).